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Wisconsin’s Interesting Times

07-23-2011 by Linda S. Carbonell

Gov. Scott Walker (Thank you, Donkey Hotey, from Flickr)

There is a very old curse, sometimes ascribed to the Chinese, “May you live in interesting times.” Wisconsin is certainly living through interesting times.

President Obama has lent the strong ground forces of Ogranizing for America to the Democrats in their challenges to the six recalled Republican State Senators. Four of them are already showing poll numbers worth sweating over, while only one appears guaranteed to keep her seat. The polls are showing that the two remaining Democrats facing recall elections are shoo-ins.

The President cited concerns for labor rights and the working families of Wisconsin for dusting off his considerable organization to get out the votes on August 9 to defeat the recalled Republicans. The Democrats need to win three of those elections to take control of the State Senate and block Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union, anti-fair-taxation, anti-community agenda.

In the meantime, Walker faced some funny protests during his re-dedication of a state welcome center on the Illinois border. Since Illinois was where the 14 Democratic state senators went when they were trying to stop Walker’s union-busting legislation, it was probably a bad choice on his part. Protesters sang “Na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na, hey hey hey, goodbye!” at Walker in between shouts of “Shame!” and “If you have a spine, resign!”

Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans made the same mistake everyone in the Republican Party made after the 2010 election. They thought that winning meant something. The facts are a bit different. The turnout for the election was so low that the Republicans swept the Wisconsin state house, other state houses and the House of Representatives on the will of only 25% of the eligible voters in America. It took the election to make the other 75% of us realize the price of not voting.

A full 62% of Wisconsinites disapprove of the way the state is going. Having a governor and state legislature that took a billion dollars from local governments, forbid them the ability to raise local taxes and then gave a billion dollars in tax breaks to the rich isn’t sitting well. Meanwhile, 53% of them think President Obama is doing a good job. When you look more closely at the numbers, get down to the “strongly disapprove” numbers, Walker is in deep trouble, with a 46% “strongly disapprove” rating while President Obama only has a 26% “strongly disapprove” number.

The Republicans in Wisconsin are also under fire for the decision to close DMV offices in predominantly Democratic districts, while extending hours at DMV offices in Republican districts, allegedly to save money, just at the time when the state is requiring photo IDs for voting. Senator Herb Kohl of Wisconsin is among a group of 16 who have asked the U. S. Justice Department to determine if these new voter IDs laws violate the Constitution. The fact that Walker is planning to close 10 DMV offices in districts which serve lower-income populations is stinking to high heaven.

The changes are being justified by a new law that requires DMV services be offered in all 72 counties at least 20 hours a week. At present, only 30 counties meet that requirement. Once the closures are done, 625 more hours will be available for ID and drivers license services. The math doesn’t make sense. It should be possible to rotate the services among satellite offices and still meet the basic requirements without closing off access to those in lower-income neighborhoods and Democratic districts.

Walker also ran into the proverbial brick wall over his call for a commission to study ways to replace the Federal No Child Left Behind requirements. It seems Wisconsin’s teachers, who suffered the most in his union busting, don’t trust him.

Walker’s spokesman, Cullen Werwie, said “Improving education isn’t a partisan issue. We’ll continue to put aside disagreements on other issues to collaborate with education leaders and improve Wisconsin schools for our children.” Improve? After you’ve cut hundreds of millions of dollars from schools?

Walker wanted to add the Wisconsin Education Association Council to the American Federation of Teachers, the School Boards Association and district administrator to his panel, but they are not going to join in. Union President Mary Bell said “We simply do not have the necessary trust or confidence. Our decision is based on experience with the governor and these legislative leaders over the last four months.” The panel includes Republican Sen. Luther Olsen (who has been recalled) and Rep. Steve Kestell. The WEAC had agreed to all the changes in benefits that Walker had insisted he needed to balance the state’s budget, but that wasn’t enough. He demanded an end to collective bargaining powers for public sector unions for everything except a a pre-determined pay raise. Everyone’s experience with Walker has been enough to make them distrust him. With Walker, there is no debate, no input, it’s all just his way or else.

Bell said the union had considered Walker’s offer to join the panel, but could not get past their experiences with the Governor last winter. “Our members wanted to sit down and talk with the governor, they wanted him to hear them out on the reason collective bargaining was so important to our schools, but he refused. Actions speak louder than words, and through the state budget process we saw that public schools are not a priority with the governor and those who follow him.” The WEAC has 98,000 members, including 66,000 teachers.

No Child Left Behind has proven to be the wrong way to tackle the problem of our failing schools. Setting unrealistic goals and punishing schools has just led to nightmares like the Atlanta school cheating scandal where teachers were altering test papers to prevent the school’s failure. State’s have been offered the possibility of establishing alternatives to NCLB, but what has already been said by Walker and his allies on the panel does not look good. They have talked about simply changing the punishments, not actually doing anything to improve schools’ performance.

Bell finished by saying what may Wisconsinites believe about Walker, “We have absolutely no evidence from our experience with this governor or those particular legislative representatives that the voice of educators — even if we said at the table what we believed –- would be heard.

The petitions to recall Walker will start being circulated next January, on the day after the first anniversary of his inauguration. If he survives, or it is not possible to overturn the photo ID law, next summer will have to see a massive volunteer effort to assist people to get the necessary photo ID and whatever else is necessary to register and to vote. This effort will be needed in every state that has suddenly decided that voter fraud is such a widespread problem that they have to put up barriers to our Constitutional right to vote.

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